Astronauts and cosmonauts have lived in space for prolonged periods in the past, but the numbers on any one stint have been few. When the station is completed, crews of seven will serve tours of duty of up to 180 days. And proposed missions to Mars could take two and a half years to complete. Naturally, sexual behavior might occur on such long missions. It is a topic, however, that makes NASA publicists uneasy–as if the issue could somehow make astronauts seem to have less of “the right stuff. ” (Rumors of unofficial orbital couplings abound, but no one is talking.
Yet sexual tensions could affect crew performance and thus mission success. “It’s just one more problem that can potentially cause the whole thing to come apart,” says retired astronaut Norman E. Thagard. Of course, sex is only one of the psychological components facing a space crew; isolation, loneliness, bickering, and habits of colleagues can come into play. Besides space living, long-duration missions in the Antarctic, nuclear submarines, offshore drilling platforms and other remote-duty environments have provided insights. In all these locales, researchers have found, teams can become divisive, even hostile.
The anger, jealousy, anxiety, and depression that often evolve have, in the worst cases, compromised mission goals. “If a small number of folks are going to be forced to be together for a long period, then we’ve got to get pretty good at being able to pick people we know for sure won’t have difficulties as a group,” explains Thagard, the first American to live on board the Mir space station, where many experienced a range of untoward psychological effects. So NASA is launching a study of behavioral issues in space in conjunction with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, a consortium of national universities and labs.
Headquartered at Baylor College of Medicine, the institute currently oversees 41 projects that attempt to find ways to combat the adverse effects of spaceflight on humans. Associate director Ronald J. White says that by next year, the NSBRI expects to add a new research team devoted to psychosocial dynamics and group behavior in space. It is high time, some would say. The National Research Council criticized NASA’s prior neglect of behavioral issues last year in a report entitled “A Strategy for Research in Space Biology and Medicine in the New Century.
The “history of space exploration has seen many instances of reduced energy levels, mood changes, poor interpersonal relations, faulty decision making, and lapses in memory and attention,” charged the report co-authored by Lawrence A. Palinkas of the University of California at San Diego and others. “Although these negative psychological reactions have yet to result in a disaster, this is no justification for ignoring problems that may have disastrous consequences. ” Since then, NASA’s decision to confront behavioral issues has surprised and pleased Palinkas, a medical anthropologist and an expert on groups in isolation.
I’m amazed,” he says, adding that NASA officials, whom “I never expected to acknowledge the importance of these factors, are doing just that. ” Skeptics are not holding their breath, however. NASA, explains psychologist and NASA adviser Robert B. Bechtel of the University of Arizona, has historically shunned the softer sciences in favor of technology. “They worry that the addition of unquantifiables like sexuality and psychology will somehow take away from the engineering side of spaceflight. Our task is to convince them that in today’s space program–and for the future–there’s room enough for both. “